by Bruce R
The eviction of Occupy St. Louis was surprisingly calm.
Occupy St. Louis was evicted recently, but it didn’t end in blood and tears. No pepper-spray was deployed. No protesters found themselves on the other end of a baton. In fact, if reports are accurate, police in St. Louis decided to opt for wits over brute strength, and common sense over riot gear.
The first thing they did was the one that baffled me the most, at first: they gave the protesters nearly 36 hours notice, as opposed to the 20 to 60 minutes’ notice other cities gave. It has taken me almost a week, and the mistakes of several other cities, to see why that was a good idea, because here’s how they did it. Early afternoon on Thursday, they gave the protesters 24 hours’ notice: as of 3pm on Friday, the no structures in the plaza rule was going to be enforced, and as of 10pm, the curfew was going to be enforced. So, unsurprisingly, Occupy St. Louis put out a huge call for as many people as possible to come to the plaza by noon, to be trained in peaceful civil disobedience; local civil liberties lawyers showed up to brief them. Needless to say, the cops did not oblige them by showing up at 3pm. Heck, I knew they weren’t going to show up at 3pm; no way were they going to snarl downtown traffic during rush hour; I told my friend not to expect them any earlier than 7pm at the very earliest.
So, when no cops showed up anywhere near 3pm, the protesters had their biggest rally to date (as I suspect the cops were thinking, “getting it out of their system”), and then started to drift away. Rally organizers advised people to be back before 10pm, to block the enforcement of curfew. Sure enough, by 10pm, they had 350 people down there. And scant minutes later, people were jazzed up and ready to go, because outlying scouts reported that the police were gathering, en masse, with multiple cars, multiple buses, an ambulance, and a firetruck, only a couple of blocks away!
And sometime around an hour, hour and a half later, the cops just disappeared, dispersed, without ever having gotten within two blocks of the plaza. So the confused protesters declared victory, let most of the troops go home, and fewer than a hundred of them bedded down for the night in their tents. An hour later, somewhere around 150 cops showed up. I’m sure people in those tents tweeted and text messaged and phoned for reinforcements. But between the late hour, and the fact that people were exhausted after having been out there all day, and that it was the third call-up of the day? Nobody showed.
So far this is pretty smart. Using the protestor’s own tools against them. Give them plenty of chance to think and organize and then wait.
But the next step was what not only made this brilliant but showed how some of the ideas of the OWS movement can inform authorities.
Ah, but the cops did more than just show up after two head-fakes and with sufficient numbers … they did right exactly what the Obama administration told everybody else to do wrong. They didn’t show up in riot gear and helmets, they showed up in shirt sleeves with their faces showing. They not only didn’t show up with SWAT gear, they showed up with no unusual weapons at all, and what weapons they had all securely holstered. They politely woke everybody up. They politely helped everybody who was willing to remove their property from the park to do so. They then asked, out of the 75 to 100 people down there, how many people were volunteering for being-arrested duty? Given 33 hours to think about it, and 10 hours to sweat it over, only 27 volunteered. As the police already knew, those people’s legal advisers had advised them not to even passively resist, so those 27 people lined up to be peacefully arrested, and were escorted away by a handful of cops. The rest were advised to please continue to protest, over there on the sidewalk … and what happened next was the most absolutely brilliant piece of crowd control policing I have heard of in my entire lifetime.
All of the cops who weren’t busy transporting and processing the voluntary arrestees lined up, blocking the stairs down into the plaza. They stood shoulder to shoulder. They kept calm and silent. They positioned the weapons on their belts out of sight. They crossed their hands low in front of them, in exactly the least provocative posture known to man. And they peacefully, silently, respectfully occupied the plaza, using exactly the same non-violent resistance techniques that the protesters themselves had been trained in.
No military outfits. No SWAT. No us-vs-them show of force. They showed up as normal people – looking every bit the 99% that the OWS has kept telling the police they are.
Respectful and encouraging, they were just guys doing their job, as best as they knew how. They had used their knowledge of the movement and people involved to the best advantage for everyone.
And the idea that they used the same non-violent techniques to occupy the plaza to prevent further OWS occupation makes this a tremendous story.
Because this eviction was not a pure demonstration of power by authorities over protesting citizens, as it has been almost everywhere else. Most of the purpose for the occupation is to provoke just the sorts of images we have seen – because they often go directly to the unfairness of the system when it (ab)uses force.
Here, we have citizens asking other citizens to leave, treating both with respect. Now the shoe is on the other foot. If any protestor did anything to hurt an officer, the protestors would be the ones in the wrong. The entire focus of the movement was put on its head.
The protestors demonstrated their attachment to their principles by calmly being arrested or moving.
But to accomplish this, the authorities had to change their behavior. They had to learn to do something different because this movement is, in many ways, designed to screw up the previous training of the authorities.
They basically had to trust that the protestors would act the way that they had said they would – peacefully and passively.
This change in behavior is actually one I would expect many in the OWS movement to applaud. Even if it brilliantly dissipates much of their momentum.
Because it demonstrates an adaptability that is, I think, inherent in eventually combating many of our problems. OWS will adapt to these techniques and the best authorities will adapt also.
To my mind, the creation of public communities that learn to adapt could be a huge milestone for the OWS movement. Adaptation and resilience will be key to surviving our problems. The faster the authorities become inculcated with this idea, the better we will all be.